Being there

A walk on the weird side

The Workers' Party's East Coast GRC team on a walkabout during the 2011 General Election.
The Workers' Party's East Coast GRC team on a walkabout during the 2011 General Election.ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

Walkabouts are weird. They are a naked appeal for votes, disguised as offers to help people.

But it gets even more strange.

Yes, there are those who only want to vent about the cost of living and HDB prices, but some ask for the oddest things.

One woman asks if the Workers’ Party (WP) can solve a problem she’s been having. She dislikes the way the residents in her HDB block have voted to hire a security guard – a useless guy who lets anyone in, she says – at her void deck, at a cost of $10 a month per household.

Could the Workers’ Party do something about it if they were in charge, she asks.

It is 9am, on a Wednesday morning. Here at the Block 58 wet market in Bedok, the WP candidates contesting in East Coast GRC chat with residents about problems that would be impossible for any agency, human or supernatural, to fix.

The candidates do what they say they have come to do: listen. It is the least they can do, and often, it is the only thing they can do. 

Sometimes, they can do a little more. Such as when Mr Seah Cheng Seong, 74, comes forward. Can the Workers’ Party help him get into his flat?

His whiskery face shows a mixture of confusion and embarrassment.

“He has lost his keys,” explains party volunteer Lisa Oh, 35. Ms Oh, a wellness consultant, is soon calling Bedok Town Council for a list of approved locksmiths and taking poor Mr Seah up to his flat to wait. He has lived alone, ever since his roommate broke his hip and had to be put into managed care.

There are a lot of elderly people here this morning, but then Bedok is an estate filled with them. Old, however, does not mean sedate.

“What can you do for me? What can you do for me?” snaps one elderly woman at the team of about 20 dressed in light blue shirts.

Candidate Eric Tan, 55, steps up to the challenge.

“We can be your voice in Parliament,” he explains smoothly, with a broad smile, throwing in the well-rehearsed line that they can apply pressure on the majority People’s Action Party (PAP) to deliver a fairer shake for retirees and older folk.

She snorts. Mr Tan, recognising now that she is asking only rhetorically, thanks her, gives her a leaflet and leaves. She walks away, shopping bags in both hands, muttering that a lone voice is a useless voice. She seems genuinely offended by the wasteful exercise of democracy this morning.

As we walk, we hear cries of “Huat ah!” – Success! – coming from the food centre. 

The other strange thing about walkabouts, I realise, is that for all the show of warmth and support for the candidates, there is none of it to be seen in the form of flags or stickers pasted on the market stalls. Hawkers, it seems, are fine with showing their Manchester United or Arsenal colours, but not WP or PAP.

The only indication that an election is on is the posters on lamp-posts.

As the WP candidates schmooze the fishmongers and vegetable sellers, the PAP is also hard at work. At this very moment, a few blocks away, candidate and Transport Minister Raymond Lim is knocking on doors.

East Coast GRC is not as turbulent a battleground as, say, Aljunied GRC, but some residents there say that in the past two weeks, they have seen at least three visits by the PAP’s GRC team, who have carpet-bombed that zone with leaflets.

As one political analyst has said, Singaporeans have a strange and unique desire to see political parties come out as a bloc, as if on parade. A solid phalanx of light blue, or all-white, is a reassuring and vote-getting sight. To a Singaporean, mustering a large crew is a show of strength. In the dying days of the campaign period, that group identity might make all the difference.

It is now almost lunchtime and just as well. A rainstorm pours down. The WP team has lunch in a coffee shop. Candidate Glenda Han, 35, comes back with a single rose, a gift from a smitten hawker.

“Wah, got admirer, ah!” teases one volunteer.

Meanwhile, the elderly Mr Seah has been safely seen into his flat, after the locksmith has picked through three locks. The $100 bill for his services is picked up by candidate Gerald Giam.

Lunch over, the team disperses, to other walkabouts and to prepare for the evening’s rally.

In news reports, candidates keep repeating the line that voters should vote for party principles, rather than for a personality.

But on this walkabout, it becomes clear that people dearly want to vote for a human being they can touch, talk with, and complain to.

If asking to be elected is like a job application, then the party manifesto is like a CV, but the walkabout is the face-to-face interview. In Singapore, both are necessary.